Restore the Table, Restore the Family

From issue 15’s “Table Talk” — 5 essays on food, eating, and the Christian life.

Whatever happened to mealtimes together as a family? And what would happen if we took them back?

Nine years ago Ryan Rush asked questions like these to his congregation at Kingsland Baptist Church in Katy, Texas. He issued the members a challenge: Eat five meaningful meals together as a family each week for 40 days.

Church leaders hauled a dining room table into the foyer of the suburban Houston, Texas, church and encouraged members to commit to the challenge by signing the table.

“It became really transformational for a lot of our people,” Rush said in an interview with Common Good.

Rush, along with writer Ken Abraham, tells the story of Kingsland’s challenge in the newly released Restore the Table: Changing the World From Your Kitchen Table with Ken Abraham, out in April. This spring, Rush is issuing his challenge again. On May 7, Kingsland Baptist Church will again hold its 40-day challenge, but this time, more churches are joining. Seven churches in the Houston area have committed to joining Kingsland on the 40-day challenge.

Gathering around the table is good, but it is just the appetizer for Rush. Substantial, meaningful meals, he says, scheduled, special, and spiritual. Scheduled means the schedule gets cleared for the time together. “Special doesn’t necessarily mean fancy food, but setting aside distractions like the television or phones in order to connect with each other,” he said.

And the spiritual component can mean praying together, but it also means inviting God to join them at the table. Rush sees intentional conversation as an excellent way to allow God to work through the meal. In Restore the Table, Rush includes a list of conversation starters to help families who might not know where to start.

Research shows that the benefits to eating together as a family are so compelling that some researchers call it “magic.” According to the Family Dinner Project, children who regularly eat family dinners demonstrate better academic performance, greater sense of resilience, lower risk of teen pregnancy, lower risk of depression, lower likelihood of developing eating disorders, larger vocabularies in preschoolers, and healthier eating patterns.

Despite decades of documented benefits, only about 30 percent of families regularly eat meals together.

Rush said the research demonstrating the benefits of family mealtime is so compelling that one doesn’t need to be a practicing Christian to see the value of family time around the table.

During the pandemic people were not only physically isolated, but the divisions in our country deepened. So Rush issued a second challenge to his congregation. In addition to five meaningful meals each week, congregants could try eating three meals each month with people outside their normal circle of friends.

In a community as ethnically diverse as Katy, residents don’t have to look much further than the house next door to find people outside of their tribe. Rush said the neighbors on his cul-du-sac hail from India, England, China, and Louisiana.

During the pandemic Rush and his neighbors would share outdoor meals in the cul-du-sac. As the meals became more regular, they also hosted an outdoor recital for the neighborhood children since formal recitals had to be canceled. The meals together have continued even as the world opened up again, and Rush said his neighbors are beginning to take ownership of the meetings. And just as he told his congregation, the meals are not always homemade. One set of neighbors offered to host the next gathering at a local restaurant.

While the meals are not overt moments of evangelism, Rush sees the bridges they are building toward his neighbors. “When they have a crisis, they will let us know,” he said.

Rush saw the power of food to break down cultural and religious barriers again in 2023 when he traveled to Somaliland, a tiny country that broke off from Somalia in the 1990s but has yet to receive formal international recognition. In September of that year, Rush visited to help dedicate a new school. Though the country is entirely Muslim, the visitors were open about their Christian faith. But the cultural and religious differences were noticeable when the community leaders met with Rush and his group to share a meal in the middle of the town.

“The sharing of food brought out stories around the table of family, upbringing, hopes, and dreams,” he said. “Before we got up from the meal, something had changed: We had a mutual appreciation for one another, they seemed to have an interest in rather than aversion to our Christian beliefs, and we had an agreement for the next project for which we would partner. The table changed everything.”

When asked about specific people who were changed by the table, Rush shares about his friend Gil Harris. Gil’s addiction had been a battle all of his adult life, even as he tried to follow Jesus faithfully. It was the face-to-face conversations around the table, Rush told Common Good, that helped Harris see what he was about to lose because he was trying to manage his addiction on his own instead of leaning on his community for help.

“His story became one of grace because he didn’t have to do this alone,” he said.

Gil’s story is one of many that Rush reported hearing from his congregation. “Our people reported news that seemed almost too good to be true,” he writes in Restore the Table. “Marriages were strengthened, moms and dads were less stressed, siblings were calmer and got along better, people who had been fighting addictions for years began to face those challenges head-on, and in more than a few cases, students’ academic grades improved.”

And for families in the throes of shuttling busy teens to activities, there is grace. Rush emphasizes that meals together don’t always have to be dinners. And they don’t have to be at the home dining room table. Sunday morning breakfast or a picnic in the back of the car before soccer practice can be opportunities for connection, too.

For his doctoral dissertation, Rush studied the relationship between leadership and what happens at home. His research reinforced to him that the home is the training ground for the next generation of leaders. Our hopes, dreams, and goals for our children are baked into meaningful time together over a meal.

“All the different elements we want our families to do could be summed up or springboarded through the table,” Rush said.

It turns out that our activities around the table -— the breaking of bread, sharing our homes and our hearts, opening our mouths and our lives — has the power not only to nourish our bodies, but to heal our communities. Pass the rolls.

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